In the Zone: Sandra Hüller’s Intimate Approach to Creating Characters

The German actor’s starring roles in “The Zone of Interest” and “Anatomy of a Fall” have put her at the center of the 2024 awards conversation.

“It’s like when you’re falling in love with someone: You think about them all the time.”

This is how Sandra Hüller describes acting—or rather, how she approaches her characters. It’s an internal practice, and a fiercely private one, too. And like falling in love, there’s no proven method; it’s something that just happens. 

“I sit with the character subconsciously from the moment that I decide I want to be a part of [a project],” the German actor says. “It surrounds me all the time. Sometimes, I like to go to the museum to look for inspiration, but it’s not set.” 

The actor found international fame after her leading turn in Maren Ade’s brilliant 2016 comedy “Toni Erdmann.” But she’s been a staple of the German stage and screen for decades, with multiple awards to her name.

Over the course of our hourlong conversation, Hüller reflects on her stunning year headlining two titles that won big at the Cannes Film Festival: Justine Triet’s searing legal thriller “Anatomy of a Fall,” which took the Palme d’Or, and Jonathan Glazer’s unnerving Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest,” which earned the Grand Prix.

Sandra Hüller photoshoot

In “Anatomy of a Fall,” Hüller plays Sandra Voyter, a German writer leading a quiet life in the French Alps with her family. That all changes when her husband, fellow scribe Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), falls to his death under mysterious circumstances. The investigation surrounding his demise gradually reveals the truth of the couple’s imperfect marriage—and turns Sandra into a murder suspect. Did she do it? That’s up to the viewer to decide. Hüller builds a towering performance as Sandra pleads innocent throughout the taxing courtroom proceedings. 

One scene that was particularly tough for the actor to navigate takes place inside a car, where a drained Sandra breaks down in front of her attorney. To reach the level of emotional transparency the sequence demanded, Hüller turned to music for inspiration. 

“Normally, you talk to your [screen] partner, and through the things you experience together, the emotion comes or doesn’t come,” she explains. “But at that point, it had to be there in the car. I had to find something [that would help me] be fragile and vulnerable.” That ended up being a song by American indie folk band Bon Iver. “[It’s] from their first album. It touches me all the time,” she says.

“Crying happens, or it doesn’t. There are all sorts of nervous breakdowns.” That brings Hüller to the other piece of art that inspired her performance in the sequence. “I [remembered] the scene from ‘The Hours’ where Meryl Streep is breaking down in the kitchen. I said to Justine, ‘I think it’s [like] this.’ I used this example because I love that scene so much. I love that film. It is something that I watch over and over again.”

After a pause, she adds, “Now I said it. Now everybody knows. I never talk about these things. It’s so intimate, how you get to these places.”

As personal as her process is, Hüller’s endless capacity to plumb the depths of the human psyche has always been evident. The first person to recognize the actor’s gift was her drama teacher at the high school she attended in the small town of Friedrichroda. 

Sandra Hüller

“I was more of a TV child. We didn’t have a theater in our town, just a small cinema,” Hüller recalls. “I never had the plan of becoming an actor. But she told me, ‘This could be something for you.’ I think it was obvious that I loved languages, that I liked poetry. I can only guess that she felt that I loved words and [couldn’t] find the right channel to work with [them].”

Once Hüller tried stage acting, she was hooked. Her formal training at Berlin’s eminent Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts provided her with invaluable skills. This was where she learned to push her boundaries as an actor within a safe space. 

She also developed a strong sense of discipline. “Like the responsibility for our own stuff,” she explains. “Making sure the costume is hung properly in the closet after you finish working, which is a sign of respect to the people who work with you, or just finding a ritual to stop being in character. These things were very important.”

“I obviously wanted to defend this character. But there was a moment [when] I thought, What if I believe her, and in the end, Justine [suggests] the opposite through music or the editing? I was scared of the possibility.”

Hüller has continued to work in theater throughout her career—most recently, in two productions at the Schauspielhaus Bochum: Jonah Simons’ gender-swapped production of “Hamlet,” in which she plays the title role, and Angela Obst’s stage adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel.” 

“I like this process a lot, the routine [of] six or eight weeks in the same room together,” she says. “The thinking together, the trying, the failing, and how much the body is involved. I just love it.” 

Her theatrical proficiency proved useful during a key sequence in “Anatomy of a Fall”: a flashback in which Sandra defends herself against Samuel’s accusation that she’s to blame for his professional failings. “When I read it for the first time, I felt like: This is the perfect scene,” the actor recalls. 

To convey an organic sense of escalation, Triet shot the sequence in a single take—and Hüller and Theis had two days to nail it. “It is very much related to stage plays, because you just have these long periods of acting,” she says. “I like the possibility to build it up and let it go, and build it up again and let it go again. [Samuel and I] were very gentle with each other, very respectful.”

Sandra Hüller

Hüller is thankful for that scene, because it finally gave her character the chance to identify the crux of the problem in her marriage: that Samuel’s professional slump is not her fault. “It’s really rare, because people normally can’t [name it]. ‘I love you, but you are wrong,’ ” she says. 

She also appreciates the way the film features multiple languages. Like Hüller herself, Sandra the character is a German native who’s comfortable speaking English, but shaky with French. “I had a lot of [French] training for this film, but my fear of not being understood was her fear, too,” she says. “There was something matching that you cannot invent.”

In the end, Hüller is reluctant to reveal whether she believes that Sandra is innocent; she feels it wasn’t something she needed to know in order to play the character. “It’s not decided in the script, and I felt like I shouldn’t be smarter than that,” she explains. “I want people to have the possibility to think everything about her according to their own moral standards or projections on relationships.”

However, she was concerned that her take on Sandra would be contradicted by a directorial choice later on. “I obviously wanted to defend this character,” she says. “But there was a moment [when] I thought, What if I believe her, and in the end, Justine [suggests] the opposite through music or the editing? I was scared of the possibility. I asked her, and she said, ‘I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t know. Also, the film is not about that.’ And I didn’t know the truth.”

“I don’t know any simple person. I like stories that show the ambiguity of life. It’s an instinctive, unconscious thing.”

Hüller did know the truth about her character in “The Zone of Interest”: Hedwig Höss, the wife of real-life Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. She lives with her husband and their five children on a comfortable estate that abuts the infamous concentration camp. Though Glazer never shows us the horrors happening on the other side of the wall, the ingenious sound design means they’re a constant presence in the film. The indifference of the Hösses is equally disquieting, as they go about their days as if they’re not actively responsible for unspeakable evil.

Hüller says she struggled for a long time with the decision to play Höss. “It’s really something that you don’t want to have in your life: this sort of thinking you would have to ignore in your own system, in your empathetic way of feeling. That is such hard work.” 

She also isn’t a fan of what she sees as a lazy cinematic tradition: non-German filmmakers casting Germans as fascists. But conversations with Glazer (who is British) and producer James Wilson (who is American) put her at ease. They assured her that “The Zone of Interest” would take a completely different approach: a story about facism, shot on location at Auschwitz, that isn’t overly dramatic and doesn’t fetishize its subjects. “It’s not about these people; it’s about everything that they don’t want to see,” Hüller explains. 

“I asked my family and I asked friends and colleagues who already did something like that,” she continues. “I wanted to know if it’s something that they regret. I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t making a mistake.”

Of course, her choice to say yes turned out to be the furthest thing from a mistake. Hüller delivers an uncompromising, specific performance that’s perfectly in step with the film’s style: a coldness that purposely prevents the audience from connecting with the characters. “The feeling was related to revenge, in a way—to make [Höss] as empty, dull, uninspired, and stupid as possible,” the actor says.

Sandra Hüller

One of the first performance decisions Hüller made alongside Glazer was to keep the character in constant motion. “Jon always said, ‘In order to think about the things you do, you have to just sit down and be quiet; [Höss] never will.’ ” 

The actor did have fun making her character struggle with the feminine grace she so desperately wants to possess. “She wanted to be a really elegant woman,” Hüller explains. “But she would never have the capacity to be that—somebody who really likes diamonds and furs. It’s not for her. So she’s stealing it from other people in order to feel better.”

The actor also created a particular walk for Höss: slightly crouched, with her legs clumsily far apart. “It is a very practical thing,” she says. “I thought about the many children she had [given birth to]. I thought about her hips, and how the work in a garden deforms the body when you are bent over all the time and [carrying] things. When I look at it now, I played her [as] an older woman than I am.”

These acting choices helped Hüller distance herself so much from the character that she felt protected from her. “I never gave her any of my capabilities to feel or empathize or understand,” she explains. “We agreed to starve her from those basic human emotions.” 

One of the hardest moments to film came when an irate Höss walks past the wall separating her home from the camp. For Hüller, it was a complicated scene in which her own emotions conflicted with her character’s. 

“She is angry because her husband wants to leave town. And me, as Sandra, as a German in this place, I’m walking beside that wall…. These [emotions] didn’t match at all. [Höss] was devastated for a completely different reason than I was; that was really hard to take in. Still, I would never complain, because no matter how hard certain moments might’ve been, I would never, ever get even close to what really happened there.” 

On days like that, especially, Hüller was grateful to have her dog by her side, a black Weimaraner who has a sizable role in the film. “It was very important that she was with me. She, of course, calmed me down. She was the only creature that liked me at that point,” the actor says tenderly. “But to be honest, it was not so much fun for her. She was very confused by everything.”

Sandra Hüller coverAfter the whirlwind of awards season abates, what’s next for Hüller? “It’s so funny that it’s even a season, right? It’s crazy,” she says. In the months ahead, she wants to do right by everyone in her life—both the people she worked with on “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” and her own family. “Everything that [has] happened [up] to this point [has been] exceptionally beautiful. I’m trying to serve this as best as I can,” she says. “[Afterward], I think I’ll disappear somewhere for a while. I want to go on a holiday with my family.”

Next year, she’ll be shooting two films by Austrian directors. The first is Markus Schleinzer’s “Rose,” about a 17th century woman who disguises herself as a man and claims to be the heir of an estate. “[She] lives as a man not because of sexual orientation reasons, but because it’s easier,” Hüller explains. “Then she gets married to a woman, and it’s about: How long are people going to believe this, and why is it not possible to live the way you want to live?” 

The second is an untitled project from Sandra Wollner that follows a family grieving after their 13-year-old daughter falls off a balcony. Both fall squarely in Hüller’s wheelhouse. “I only know complicated women; I don’t know any simple person. I like stories that show the ambiguity of life. It’s an instinctive, unconscious thing.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Photographed by GL Askew II in West Hollywood, CA on 11/19. Styling by Jordan Johnson Chung.